Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota school officials moved quickly Thursday to reassure transgender students and their families after President Donald Trump withdrew a federal directive meant to protect them in schools, giving some hope to parents like Alison Yocom who are worried for their children.
“We were scrambling and trying to figure out what to say to our kids,” said Yocom of Minneapolis, mother to George, a 13-year-old transgender boy. In contact with other parents through the support group Transforming Families, Yocom said some of their kids were afraid to go to school on Thursday.
“Kids’ lives are at stake,” Yocom said.
Trump’s decision to undo the federal directive is unlikely to have an immediate impact in Minnesota, where the Human Rights Act and other laws require public schools to ensure the safety of all children regardless of sex and sexual orientation. But it brings back front and center a hot-button social issue that has sparked fierce debate about how schools and other public facilities should accommodate transgender people.
Social conservatives and other opponents of the now-rescinded directive, issued by former President Barack Obama, cheered Trump’s move. They said the federal government overreached by interfering in matters best left to states.
State Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, had previously introduced legislation at Minnesota’s Capitol to require people to use bathrooms and changing rooms that match their “biological sex.” In reference to transgender people, Gruenhagen said he doesn’t believe “many of them, if any,” are dangerous.
“But I do believe that somebody who has an intent of endangering a child or another person could use a transgender law because it’s based on feelings, not on biology, an objective standard, as an excuse to abuse, harass or create an unsafe environment for someone else,” Gruenhagen said.
At a news conference Thursday, Dayton forcefully spoke out against Trump’s order. “This is not a, quote, states’ rights issue — it is a human rights issue, and it should be a constitutionally protected right,” Dayton said.
He urged Minnesota school districts to adhere to the rescinded guidance and said schools are still responsible for ensuring the safety of transgender students. State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius on Thursday issued a message to school superintendents and charter school directors affirming the state’s position.
“These are vulnerable people with very challenging life circumstances and they deserve our compassion and support, not our attacks and demonization,” Dayton said.
Dayton’s office provided the results of a 2016 Minnesota student survey that found that transgender students are less likely to feel safe at school. The survey found that more than half of all transgender students have attempted suicide in the past year, compared with fewer than one in five students who are heterosexual or cisgender, meaning students who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he planned to introduce legislation that would “simply uphold that it is the policy of the state to recognize the protections that [federal law] affords to all students.”
For many Minnesota schools, Trump’s reversal will have little to no immediate impact, said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Minneapolis and St. Paul, among the state’s largest school districts, adapted their buildings and bathrooms long ago — even before Obama’s sweeping directive — and don’t anticipate any changes.
St. Paul, which considers itself a leader in the state for its gender inclusion policy approved in 2015, asks that students be called by preferred names and pronouns, giving them the right to participate in co-curricular activities and providing access to facilities that align with their gender. Minneapolis schools adhere to a similar policy.
“Every student has the right to a safe and welcoming education,” Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff said Thursday, reaffirming that protections for transgender students and staff “will remain the same today as they were yesterday.”
Other large districts, like Anoka-Hennepin and Eastern Carver County, have yet to adopt a formal bathroom policy but operate on a case-by-case basis.
Beginning in 2015, Eastern Carver County added at least one accommodating facility for transgender and nonconforming students in each of its 15 schools. “That’s what it means to serve a public school — we work with every student and family who walks through our doors,” said spokesman Brett Johnson.
At Anoka-Hennepin, where very few gender-neutral options exist, transgender students are expected to seek out administrators for special accommodations. Often they are permitted to use a single-stall or staff bathroom, said spokesman Jim Skelly.
“Many times, that’s their preference,” he said. “What we don’t have is people just walking into restrooms and causing problems.”